Orthodox Christmas in Bulgaria

These photos were taken in the Russian Church of St Nicholas and the Bulgarian Church of St Sophia, both in central Sofia, with the permission of their respective priests.


Vitosha, Water

It is remarkable that “water” has four of the same letters as “earth”. And where would the earth be without water? “Earth” has the same letters as “heart”. Without water, our heart would shrivel up.

What amazes me is the way it flows constantly. Even in the night, when I am not there. During the week. All the time until my next visit, it flows.

Sometimes it is blue, like the sky. Sometimes it is reddish brown, like a brick. Sometimes it takes on the colour of my shadow.

It is whatever is thrown at it. But sometimes it becomes a blur – too fast for my eyes to distinguish.

In the night, it is black – unless there is a moon, I imagine.

Water always finds a way – even if it has to go underground. Or fly through the air.

On Vitosha, I have seen it so calm it resembled a mirror. But I have also seen it rage after a storm. Then it is no longer transparent, it seems to boil.

We step on the land; without water, we would sink, as in a desert. Too much water, and we swim.

Water lies on a bed of gravel. And rests its head on rock pillows. It rises up from the rock. It slips through gaps. It causes us to build bridges – that is a good thing.

When it enters the air, it is smashed into smithereens.

Later, in the sea, it evaporates to fall on my head. Then I walk through a sauna. The water is so prevalent it climbs up my legs. I have sat in the car as it beat down with unusual ferocity. Still I got out.

I like it when it’s the mountain and me. Today I walked through the hordes, as if I came from another planet. Another age.

Water is most beautiful on the mountain. It is like a curtain. Or a seam. The mountain shudders. Sends the water tumbling. It resists – for now.

I know a secret place where I sit and watch it gleam.

27 August 2022

Text and photographs by Jonathan Dunne, photograph selection by Tsvetanka Elenkova.

Vitosha is the mountain that lies just south of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.


There are two waterfalls on the outskirts of Sofia, on the lower slopes of the mountain that overlooks Sofia from the south, Vitosha. They are Aleko and Boyana. Aleko is the name of the last stop on the cabin lift that climbs the mountain from the Simeonovo district of Sofia and finishes a few hundred metres shy of the summit, Cherni Vrah (‘Black Peak’). Aleko Waterfall, however, is much lower down the mountain, between the districts of Dragalevtsi and Simeonovo.

To reach Aleko Waterfall, the best way is to head to Dragalevtsi Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in Sofia, which has an old church with valuable frescoes. Above the monastery is a car park. From the far corner of the car park a path leads directly up the mountain, with the monastery residential building on the left, but you don’t have to go any higher up the mountain. Instead you take a path that forks immediately left (with the monastery behind you and on your left) and then you stay more or less at the same height and wind your way around the mountain. Within a few minutes, the path forks again. Do not be tempted to start to climb the mountain; take the left fork and continue until you reach two wooden bridges crossing the Dragalevska River. This is a charming spot, with the river threading through the forest, and there is a wooden walkway between the bridges to help you keep your feet dry!

Continue at the same height. The path winds through a wonderful beech and pine forest. After a short time, you reach the disused Dragalevtsi-Goli Vrah chairlift, my first experience of taking a lift on Vitosha Mountain. It was like sitting on a park bench suspended in mid-air and for me, a novice at the time, it was a terrifying experience. I gradually became used to it, but sadly the lift has been discontinued. This is a shame since it offered a very useful way for walkers and mountain bikers to head up the mountain.

At a later stage, you will come across a fountain with a bench and a small icon of the Mother of God. All the time, paths continue up the mountain or drop down, but there is no need to change your height. After about an hour, there is a rocky outcrop with one of the most beautiful views of Sofia down below. Be careful not to go too close to the edge! This is an ideal place to stop and take some refreshments. You are now two minutes away from the waterfall. Continue along the path, and you will come to the waterfall, which when I visited in February was partially frozen and made for a wonderful sight.

The waterfall is formed by the river Skakavitsa, and I understand there is a second, smaller waterfall further down. You now have a choice to retrace your footsteps (if you have left the car in the car park) or to continue to Simeonovo and the Simeonovo Lakes, a set of small, artificial pools, which takes another half an hour. Buses go to and from the districts of Dragalevtsi and Simeonovo, so whether you retrace your footsteps or continue to Simeonovo, you should be able to take a bus from there back to the centre of Sofia.

A tree has been protected by a fence. On the left is the wire fence surrounding Dragalevtsi Monastery.
The monastery buildings through the trees.
The path forks almost immediately. Keep left.
A wooden bridge over the Dragalevska River.
Snow and beeches!
The disused Dragalevtsi chairlift, with Sofia in the background.
More cables cut through the forest, offering another view of Sofia.
Beneath the snow is one of many moraines – rocks left by glaciers – on Vitosha Mountain.
Small trees pushing against the odds.
Rock formations.
The rocky outcrop just before the waterfall.
From here you are within touching distance of the waterfall.
The waterfall, which in February was partially frozen.
A more general view of the waterfall.
The rocky outcrop offers one of the best views of Sofia.


Chavdar is a pretty village about seventy kilometres due east of Sofia, a little south of the main road, the E871, that connects Sofia with Burgas on the Black Sea coast. This road runs alongside the Balkan mountain to the north, so from Chavdar and the walk to the nearby waterfall of Kazanite you get wonderful views of the Balkan itself. To the east, you also get a glimpse of the industrial town of Pirdop.

You drive straight through the village and continue for another three kilometres along the asphalt road until you reach the river Topolnitsa, a beautiful river that looks like elephant hide. Here the asphalt road becomes a dirt track. We went in January and decided to park the car on the verge just before the bridge. You then walk about 700 metres along the dirt track in front of you before cutting through the forest on your right (there is a signpost), again along a rutted track that climbs the side of the hill, offering wonderful views of the Balkan and Pirdop behind you.

You reach the top of the hill, and the track begins to descend. Shortly afterwards, there is a steep path going directly down to the waterfall. Again, this is signposted. The path leads to a metal bridge over the waterfall and to a picnic table on the other side, next to the stream (a tributary of the Topolnitsa). From here, you can see the top of the waterfall, but the only way to get a general view of the waterfall like the one in the photos is to backtrack a little and then edge your way along the side of the stream until you can see the waterfall in front of you. The ledge you walk along is narrow, so this is not for the fainthearted! You can also walk off the path down to the stream below the waterfall and again look upstream to the waterfall, though from here you will only see the lower part of the waterfall.

The waterfall is called ‘Kazanite’, meaning ‘The Cauldrons’ in Bulgarian. The various pools look like cauldrons, the running water is the ingredients being stirred. In the photos below, you can see the walk to the waterfall, which takes about an hour and a half, and the waterfall itself. A perfect day out from Sofia. On the way back, you can stop in the village of Chavdar and have a drink in the centre.

The river Topolnitsa, where we left the car.
A view alongside the Topolnitsa.
The rutted track running through the forest.
A view west (the side of the hill is being mined for something).
Beautiful white winter blossom.
Looking back – the Balkan mountain to the north of Chavdar and the E871.
The road ahead!
The bare forest – down below is the stream that creates the waterfall. We are nearly there!
The short path leading down to the bridge over the waterfall.
A general view of Chavdar Waterfall (I am standing on a ledge!).
A close-up of the waterfall. Note a waterfall comprises two things: the water and the rock around it.
A fiery heart in the forest. You can see the stream below the waterfall and an open area to the left.
Ditto. You can see the path on the left, which has a wooden handrail.
The open area next to the stream below the waterfall. You have to leave the path to get here.
Looking back up to the lower part of Chavdar Waterfall, with a January sunset.

Izgrev Revisited

Today I revisited Izgrev, meaning ‘Sunrise’ in Bulgarian, the old artists’ and writers’ quarter of Sofia, where I lived when I first arrived in Bulgaria seventeen years ago. It’s obvious my wife, a poet, is the one who found me the flat. I used to enjoy living in this quarter, it was quiet, relatively small, there were one or two embassies, a disused railway track and, on the other side of the track, a very cold swimming pool. You could even catch a bus to go to Vitosha, the mountain that overlooks Sofia from the south (in those days I didn’t drive, that would come later). I lived in a flat on the eighth floor of a high-rise, perhaps twenty floors in all, six apartments per floor. I remember people being friendly and cultured. There was a family whose daughter was a professional pianist and she used to practise at dizzying pace in the afternoons. There was a lovely old couple that lived upstairs, but unfortunately their son (perhaps to forge an identity of his own) used to be up and about at night, and his bedroom was on top of mine. This is one of the reasons I left the apartment after little more than a year. The other was a drunk who lived downstairs and who would get inebriated on vodka on a Friday night, come home, put his music on loud and throw up in the toilet (I was still able to make this out over the loud music). It wasn’t a bed of roses, but I was experiencing my first taste of Eastern Europe, a culture shock for someone who had lived in England and Spain before that, but one that has served me well. The flat was comfortable and cosy, and the icing on the cake was a house martins’ nest just outside my bedroom window. I used to watch the adults flying at exactly the height of my apartment over breakfast. Unadulterated joy. I also did a lot of work there, and translated my first and only Catalan novel, In the Last Blue by Carme Riera, winner of the Spanish National Book Award, about the persecution of Jews on the island of Mallorca in the seventeenth century.

I grew up in a village in Surrey and one of my first memories is visiting the local woods. To my good fortune, it turns out Izgrev has a wood and I used to immerse myself in this wood, going for walks every day, leaving behind the slightly grey high-rise blocks (and the car alarms) and seemingly entering another world. The forest took me in. I think it understood I had recently left my familiar surroundings, so it took me under its wing, so to speak. It accepted me. I spent many hours circumambulating the forest, walking around its furthest extent, then diving into the interior, criss-crossing the wood, until I reached the very centre, where there stood a tall sequoia tree. Some days were better than others, but I grew to love this wood, and I think this wood loved me. There was one particular gentleman, a fellow walker, who used to be there as much as me. He would walk around with his head in the air, looking upwards, his gaze distracted, as if he had entered another dimension. I’m not even sure if he noticed me. Or perhaps it was just the thick glasses that gave him this otherworldly look, as if he had climbed further up the ladder of divine ascent. I wondered what he could see, what it was I wasn’t seeing. The world can seem so two-dimensional from transport (a car or a train), even three-dimensional when we are in it, but it is difficult to reach further in, to enter the code, to strain our eyes. We must wait for the vision to come to us.

The sequoia tree at the heart of Izgrev Forest.

I took solace in this forest. I remember a Romanian-Nigerian couple coming to stay for a night, and I religiously took them on my daily outing, a swift walk around the forest’s outer border. We couldn’t walk next to each other, the path wasn’t wide enough, and it was getting dark, so we walked in single file, with me leading the way. Goodness knows what they made of this quasi-nocturnal outing, but they never said anything and smiled all the way.

Today I went back to the forest, the path that leads away from the high-rise buildings, up into the woods. A short ascent, and then you are on the level. I started by following the main path all around the forest, busy roads limiting its extent on every side where there are not buildings. Then I cut in along a path I knew in order to get back where I had started. It seemed to take much less time than I had anticipated. Perhaps twenty minutes in all. And I had been expecting a single circuit of the forest to be enough. I was a little disappointed. Had the forest become smaller in my absence? No, it seemed the same. Was it because it was winter, and I could see through the trees, which therefore gave the impression the forest had shrunk? Or is it that, in order to package our memories, we make the places we have been to smaller? They expand when we are there, when we live in a place on a daily basis, but when we leave, they contract in order not to occupy too much memory on the hard disk of our minds. It felt like revisiting an old girlfriend. You wondered what all the fuss had been about. The world – what am I saying, the universe – you had shared now seemed small and provincial. Your life lay elsewhere. In the intervening period, I had got married, had a child, learned to drive, been through a wealth of experiences. And that little pocket I had explored so much now seemed just that – a little pocket.

Sometimes I wonder if the world is all flat. When we visit a place, we blow it up, like a balloon, and it expands in order to contain our life, our loves and experiences, and when we leave, it deflates again, like a balloon after a party.

I didn’t go there to revisit my past. I went because it’s New Year’s Day and I wanted to give Simi, our dog, a run-around. We were a bit late to go all the way to the mountain, Vitosha, so I took him there instead. He was happy, charging ahead, choosing a path when there was a fork in the expectation that I would go the same way and then charging back when I chose another (which I invariably did), his nose close to the ground. I wondered what it seemed like to him. After all, he’s only about half a foot tall (a foot, if I include his tail). The trees must seem enormous. They must multiply him about sixty times. Did he realize when I was retracing my steps, taking a path for the second time or in the opposite direction? Or was it all new to him, virgin territory to explore? (Does virgin territory even exist for dogs, can’t they always smell who’s been there before?)

Izgrev Forest.

We reached the end of our walk, Simi didn’t seem too unhappy to leave. He’s very accommodating. We passed the Korean restaurant on the ground floor of a house (so that was still working – why hadn’t I ever gone there to eat?), went past my old block with its bench out the front, seemingly inviting neighbourly conversation, past the supermarket where I did my first shopping (did Bulgarians even eat the same food as we did?), and back to the car. We hopped in, I did a three-point turn and drove back the way we had come, past the Russian Embassy compound and the garden dedicated to Peter Deunov. I left behind this remnant of my past and returned to the world I am in.

Jonathan Dunne,



The Cross is a universal symbol. It is to be found everywhere, even in the constellations. It is in effect two intersecting lines, people interlacing arms in order to gee someone up – that is, a Cross provides support, it is a foundation, unlike a single line (a wall, a tower), which can easily be broken. A Cross was used in Roman times as a shameful means of putting someone to death. I imagine it is agonizing. The person on the Cross is at their most vulnerable, all parts exposed, arms outstretched. There is nowhere to hide. For God made man, it is the ultimate act of giving, nothing held back. For us, it is the denial of the ego, of our selfish impulses, because the Cross represents the ego (I) with a line drawn through it: †. It also represents, however, a plus-sign: +. This is what Christ meant by his seemingly paradoxical statement: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Jesus tells us to “deny ourselves, take up our Cross and follow him” (Matthew 16:24). We curb our passions, don’t give in to anger or lust, don’t try to avoid suffering. We endure, albeit only for a moment, and find our sight has been cleansed, our spiritual eye (I) has been opened (O). We count down, from 1 to 0. The Cross is a doorway, a signal of intent. Push a little, and it opens. Reveals the light. Like a child’s fist.

These are Crosses I have come across in my everyday life, in Bulgaria and other countries, on holiday or while performing an errand. I hope these photographs will serve to remind us of the presence of God in our daily lives.

Jonathan Dunne